What’s Important for Vegetarians and Vegans to Eat?

Many people choose to exclude meat and other animal products from their diet for a variety of reasons and to varying extents. Whatever the reason, careful planning is needed to ensure adequate nutrient intakes.

Avoiding deficiency
‘Vegetarianism’ encompasses a range of dietary patterns. Lacto-ovo-vegetarians eat dairy products and eggs, pesco-vegetarians (or pescatarians) eat all seafood on top of the foods eaten by lacto-ovo-vegetarians, and vegans do not eat any food of animal origin (including honey). The more restricted the diet, the more care needs to be taken to get all nutrients required by the body.In plant-based diets, several key nutrients may be deficient, absent or poorly absorbed from the gut. These include high quality protein, very long chain omega-3 fatty acids (eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), docosahexaenoic acid (DHA)), iron, zinc, calcium and vitamins D and B12.


In vegetarian and vegan diets, several key nutrients may be deficient, absent or poorly absorbed from the gut. These include high quality protein, very long chain omega-3 fatty acids (eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), docosahexaenoic acid (DHA)), iron, zinc, calcium and vitamins D and B12.

Intakes of these nutrients are usually adequate in pescatarian and lacto-ovo-vegetarian diets. However, iron stores tend to be lower in vegetarians and vegans because the most readily absorbed form of iron, haem iron, is only found in meat, poultry and fish.1 Anaemia due to severe prolonged iron deficiency is no more common in vegetarians than non-vegetarians; children and pre-menopausal women are at greatest risk.1,2 Vegans may have low intakes of calcium, which, when combined with low intakes of protein and vitamin D, can adversely affect bone health.2 Another important nutrient to consider for vegetarians, and vegans is vitamin B12, as it is found only in animal-sourced foods. Deficiency of vitamin B12 during pregnancy can cause irreversible neurological damage to the foetus.3,4 Furthermore, it is also associated with high blood levels of homocysteine, a known risk factor for cardiovascular disease.5

Fatty fish such as salmon, herring and mackerel are rich sources of the omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA, which are important for brain development, normal vision, heart health and certain other bodily functions. EPA can also be synthesised in sufficient quantities by the human body if the precursor alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) is provided through diet. Valuable vegetarian sources of ALA are plant and seed oils, especially walnut and rapeseed oil. Synthesis of DHA from ALA, however, is much less efficient and supplementation may thus be required to meet bodily needs.6

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